IGN Review of EA Sports: Grand Slam Tennis
Let's be honest here. For about three years Wii motion control has been – minus a few big exceptions – one big joke. The promise of motion gaming was replaced by "waggle" (a term that even publishers are using to promote games now) and as I sit here now having played just about 100% of the system's library I can't think of too many games that have used motion control as well as Wii Sports Bowling did. Yikes… you know there are issues when the system's pack-in launch game is the best control offering out there.
Times are seriously changing though, as Nintendo has finally given people a reason to go back to motion-based controls in games. Wii MotionPlus arrives this week in the US, and if Grand Slam Tennis is any indication the device might as well be called Wii 2, as it raises the bar in a big way for Nintendo's console. In the case of Grand Slam Tennis there are still some first-time jitters to get out of the way, but already we're seeing stronger motion than ever before on the system, and it feels great. Nintendo's newest peripheral is changing the game, and EA is first out the gate to prove it.
Grand Slam Tennis won't be winning any Best Sports Game awards during our end-of-the-year ceremonies, but it's still one heck of a package, and one that players eager to step into the new Wii control era should certainly consider picking up. Teaming some of the best players in the world with some never before (or at least in a long, long time) played courts, Grand Slam Tennis is EA's huge step into the world of tennis on Wii. You'll notice a new graphical style – one that you may love or hate; I'm somewhere in the middle honestly – impressive controls, and a nice set of modes for this first-year rookie experience. Online play? Check. Party mode? Check. Career? Check. Multiplayer? Yeah, pretty much required in this one…
Grand Slam Tennis allows for a lot of different gameplay options, with everything from Wii MotionPlus to regular Wii-mote support, nunchuk schemes and standalone remote-only play. And while EA is going for the casual non-gamer audience out there on this one, those that splurge for Wii MotionPlus and a nunchuk are going to be the ones that really find out what Grand Slam Tennis truly has to offer. The main MotionPlus-less mode is based entirely on timing, even going as far as to have an on-screen interface that shows where you'll hit based on the early or late inklings of your swing. The real deal comes with MotionPlus though, where full-on shot placement is supported, letting you actually pop the ball short and wide, or go cross-court with a full on swing. The most amazing part about it though? It works.
Well, most of the time.
It took me about 10 – 15 minutes of time to really get a feel for what Wii MotionPlus was doing, and another half hour or so to really feel confident that I was playing exactly how it wanted me to, but considering the amount of time real tennis takes that's not exactly a huge investment. Still, the time wasn't necessarily taken learning the swings or court strategy, but more so what the game does and doesn't want players doing. For starters, Wii MotionPlus can get out of sync, and if you aren't mindful of where the remote is post-play you'll run into that issue – especially during replays. The one-to-one hand-tracking will look visibly out of sync at times, and if you don't have a second to rest your hand still and recalibrate it (all MotionPlus calibration is done automatically by holding the unit still) you might be off for the next point. Along those same lines, Wii MotionPlus can still be temperamental with motion vs. movement (or it's programmed to be in this situation), so if you pull your hand back fast during a backswing your character could swing away. As another minor issue the whole serve hand movement and racquet spinning is a total gimmick and doesn't really work. Lifting and lowering your hand pre-serve is sketchy at best, and the actual serve mechanics themselves are entirely time-based and about as far from one-to-one as it gets.
As far as the in-game "motion screw-ups" though, I saw it happen with other players far more than on my own, and in the hands of a few non-Wii gamers the experience was still really enjoyable. Our own video guy Anthony Cava is a serious tennis player, and he called it the best tennis game he'd ever played after just a few minutes with the controller. Issues can arise at times, but that's far from the common experience as far as I'm concerned.
In fact, the addition of control found in Wii MotionPlus is so impressive that it actually affects the entire experience across the board. I wouldn't normally want to go through challenge modes or mini-games while playing in a serious career experience, but in Grand Slam Tennis it's fun. I hate getting beat in online matches, but I found myself smiling when getting slammed during global play since I knew the guy on the other side just pulled off an amazing shot. Since everything is calibrated to a more realistic experience – if you get tense and over swing during a match you'll actually knock the ball out of bounds – you feel more in control of the match, and losing is less about the game "cheating" you on a swing and more about honing your own skills. Yeah there's a bit of a learning curve – honestly, about time on Wii – but when the reward for shot practice is a game so fun that you're going back just to knock a few balls around in quick play over and over that's something I can get behind. Once mastered you'll be able to put the ball wherever you want on the court, and doing that with real motion control is very, very rewarding.
As for the actual content in Grand Slam Tennis, there's quite a lot to be found. Career mode has a full-on character builder, complete with gear from Nike, Under Armor, Adidas, and more. As you tour around from one Grand Slam Tournament to the next you'll challenge pros and take their special abilities via skill medals, and then attach them to your player to up their player-specific boosters on the fly. Skill level-ups happen during regular play as well, so nailing an awesome shot during a final set in the US Open might pause the screen for a second and actually show your star rating rise; pretty cool. Party mode boasts a pretty serious list of mini-games, but outside of the more generic "play a regular game with four people" or "drop shots/lob shots/net shots are worth double" tweaks there are still a few true party games to be found. You've got one-on-two handicap matches, tag team bouts that require each team to switch off who hits each time, and king of the ring variations where only the game's "King" can score points. Not bad. A calorie burn mode is also included as sort of a health-conscious tracking tool, but it's pretty simple overall, allowing you to set goals and watch how many calories you burn while swinging away across all modes. It's a nice touch, and it tracks your play time nicely, but determining how many calories you're actually cutting (without taking into account age, height, weight, and all that) is more of a rough estimate than anything else.
And from what I've played of online mode thus far (local matches and online against a couple USA players) Grand Slam Tennis is a great Wi-Fi Wii game. Once connected I didn't notice a single frame drop or moment of slowdown, and everything worked as if connected locally. This may change when going across the globe – part of Grand Slam's main online mode is based on country vs. country play, so each time you win against someone else you actually earn points for your nation as well as yourself – but during USA play it was a blast. You've got leaderboards for nations, a top 100 players list for single and doubles play, and a full-on My Stats page that shows wins, losses, total rank, and current EA Online level for your account. The standard message system is back as well, so you can use your EA Nation login info and not have to deal with friend codes. It looks and feels identical to Tiger or Madden's online infrastructure, but works great.
As for a few final notes, there are certainly ways for EA to make Grand Slam Tennis a stronger experience for next year, though it's already one heck of a sports package on Wii. 12 courts are included in all, and the list of pros is great, but there's a bit lacking in the overall voiceover package. You won't get any chatter mid-rally, and the actual player-specific comments never extend too far from the intro and wrap-up segments. The menu navigation in the game is also a bit rough, using no cursor control via Wii's IR and even ignoring the analog stick entirely (huh?) for those that use the nunchuk. Speaking of nunchuk use, serious players will want to plug it in right off the bat. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the player control AI isn't exactly the smartest out there, and oftentimes you'll set up for one side of a swing and the player will think differently on the shot; when the game senses the difference between forehand and backhand shots you'll want to be entirely in control. For those that have kept their Wii budget pretty thin so far though, that also means you'll need a Wii-mote, nunchuk, and Wii MotionPlus unit for each player, and that can get expensive. Once you try it though, it's the only way worth playing, and you'll want the real deal from then on out.
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